In the Shadow of War Summary

Ben Okri

In the Shadow of War

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In the Shadow of War Summary

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In The Shadow of War is a work of short fiction written by Ben Okri about a young Nigerian boy who ventures out into the jungle to learn the truth about a mysterious woman, only to find the terrifying reality of war.

The story begins in a small village somewhere in Nigeria where a boy, Omovo, listens to a radio announcement about military operations and casualties. The radio also mentions that a lunar eclipse will be taking place that night. As Omovo’s father dresses and prepares himself to go to work, Omovo asks him what an eclipse is. The father says it is when the world goes dark and evil creatures come out and eat little children. “Heclipses hate children,” the father says, but Omovo doesn’t believe him. The father then tells Omovo to turn off the radio because news about the war is not a good thing for children to listen to. Omovo turns off the radio as his father gives him his allowance, but he turns it back on after his father leaves to catch the bus to work.

Omovo then begins to look for a mysterious woman who walks by his house every day. She covers her face with a black veil. He has heard other children say that she moves without walking, that her feet never touch the ground, and that she casts no shadow. While looking for the woman, Omovo notices three soldiers sitting across the street drinking and playing checkers. He sees them talking to passing children and giving them money. Omovo goes outside and walks over to the soldiers.  One of the soldiers asks him his name and he answers “Heclipse”. The soldier laughs at him and then asks if has seen a mysterious woman with a black veil. Omovo says he hasn’t. The soldier then tells Omovo that the woman is a spy working with the enemy and asks him to watch for her and tell them if he sees her. Then they offer Omovo money, which he refuses.

Omovo goes back to his window to wait for the woman, but falls asleep. He awakens to his radio, which is still announcing more information about war related facts that Omovo doesn’t comprehend. He realizes that the mysterious woman has just walked past his house and the soldiers are following her. He runs after her, moving through war ravaged neighborhoods and an abandoned cement plant. He catches up to the woman and sees her giving food and supplies to women and children living in a cave. She then leaves the cave and heads down to a river. Omovo follows her, but the sight of an animal carcass and a snake slithering down a tree distract him, making him forget to notice if she casts a shadow or floats above the ground. When Omovo reaches the river, he sees what seems at first to be capsized canoes, but then believes them to be dead, bloated animals. Omovo hears a scream and hides in the shadow of a tree. He sees that the soldiers have caught up to the woman. They begin asking her where “the others” are hiding. They remove her veil and reveal that she is bald and badly scarred. Omovo suddenly realizes that the animals in the river are actually dead men. He watches the soldiers attack and kill the woman.

This terrifies Omovo, who takes off running, trips on a tree root, and is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he believes that he is blind because everything is dark. He learns that his “blindness” is simply the dark of nighttime when he follows voices out to a balcony where his father sits drinking with the soldiers. Omovo begins to tell his father what he witnessed earlier, but his father stops him and tells him he should just be thankful that the soldiers brought him home.

Born in Minna, northern Nigeria in 1959, Ben Okri studied literature at Essex University and Trinity College Cambridge in England. He has won both the Booker award and an OBE and is a Vice President of the English Centre of International PEN and a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre.

Some major themes found in The Shadow of War are truth, light and darkness; reality verses fantasy; and war. The father lies to Omovo about eclipses, Omovo lies to the soldiers about having seen the woman, and the truth about the woman is not what Omovo expected it to be. Most of the story takes place on a bright, sunny day, but the story about the heclipse, the black veil on the woman, the dark cave where the women and children live, the shadow of the tree where Omovo hides, and Omovo’s fear that he is blind all relate to the theme of light and shadow. The story about the heclipse, the children’s claims that the woman casts no shadow and floats, the soldier’s story about the woman being a traitor, and the canoes that turn out to be dead men, all clash with reality as can be seen by the radio announcements, the destroyed neighborhoods, the abandoned cement plant, and the disfigurement and death of the woman. And throughout is woven the most prominent and disturbing theme of all—the realities of war. We see it through the bombings and reports of battles playing on the radio, the soldiers looking for spies, the vacant destroyed places, the starving people, and, most of all, through death.